Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Secret World: GW2

When GW2 started it looked for a while as though it might follow the development model I've always preferred for MMOs; one where regular, permanent content is continually supplemented by one-off, never to be repeated, "you had to be there" events. It used to be close to the norm for the genre but as commercial success moved MMOs further and further along the mainstream curve, this particular expression of "exclusivity" fell out of fashion.

I consider this not just to be a mis-step for the genre but a fundamental change in its function. Unrepeatable content that yet left an impact that could be seen years later by players who weren't there when it happened was one of the defining features of playing online - that and talking, competing and co-operating with strangers. The shared experience of such events, events which had a beginning, middle and end and which left lasting changes to the landscape or structure of the game, contributed hugely to the sense of MMOs as Virtual Worlds as opposed to merely games.

Mrs Bhagpuss's Charr Mesmer modelling the Catmander Tag
ArenaNet struggled on with this concept for a long while, even after the very first flagship event, The Lost Shores, crashed and burned. The entire first season of The Living Story relied on content that appeared, hung around for a while, then vanished. Often it left the physical environment altered, sometimes in ways that now appear mysterious and strange.

I sometimes wonder what new players make of locations like North Nolan Hatchery or Cragstead, which seem to exist without any in-game purpose. That thought came back to me last night, when Mrs Bhagpuss ported me into the hidden area behind the waterfall in The Desert Borderlands so I could buy my Catmander Tag and Mini.

It occurred to me as I explored the cave behind the waterfall that someone at ANet, possibly a lot of someones, have never given up the fight, even though an increasingly intransigent, demanding segment of the audience, arguably although not necessarily the majority, has, over the course of the last five years, driven the developers into a corner.

The requirement is that everything that's added to the game must remain - at least theoretically - available to everyone forever. It can be gated by whatever means you like - real money, time played, luck - but the possibility that anything there ever was can be yours, whether you've played since launch or started yesterday, is sacrosanct.

A young quaggan misunderstands the Pirate Ship Meta

The most recent example and probably the most cynical (because acquisition is gated by lockboxes purchased through the Gem Store) is the addition of  a vendor that sells signature items from Living Story events that can no longer be replayed. Some of those, like the Selfless and Thoughtless potions, once the rewards for lengthy grinds, remained until now badges of honor - or at least effort - for those who displayed them. Others, like the Minis from Lost Shores, were increasingly scarce, highly valuable trading items on the exchange.

Now you can have them all - in theory, at least. This is ANet's "if you can't beat 'em, exploit 'em" response to the barbarians at the gates. There is, however, a much more subtle, almost subliminal faction quietly at work beneath the surface.

Yellow Catmander puzzles over the futility of life.

As The Living Story limped on into its third season, bound both to instances and a funereal cadence, it began to be supplemented by something known only as "Current Events". These were patched in much more frequently, with no fanfare other than one solitary, enigmatic line in the update notes and sometimes not even that.

They spread by word of mouth (and Dulfy, of course) and they only began to appear in your Quest Journal Achievement List after you happened to stumble across them in-game. I found them to be reliably and consistently more interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking than the Living Story content itself.

Caution: Moving Parts
These, too, have now been consolidated and codified, hardened into the game as official Achievements accessed through their own tab. Like everything else, they must always be there for anyone who wants them, evermore.

And that's fine, provided there are more unpublicized pleasures to come. ANet have arrived at a bizarre state of doublethink, in which the entire landscape of the game, both in and out of instances, is now, by canon, snapshots in time. Every Map is frozen in stasis. How we as players figure in that or where we can find the part of the game that occurs in "the present" escapes me but I'm sure someone, somewhere understands it.

Against this chaotic, incoherent and unmistakably fudged backdrop, the struggle continues. The weapon of choice for this insurgency? Cats.

I forget exactly when collectable cats began to appear in the game. It was earlier this year, I think. Tyria has always had a lot of cats, along with rabbits, owls, hawks and various other "ambients". They never interacted with players in any way until, suddenly, they did.

Who would notice that a cat had an interactive speech icon when targeted? Someone must have. Then Dulfy knew. Then  we all knew. Knew to speak to cats, to feed cats, to find cats installing themselves in our Home Instances.

Can we watch another channel? I'm bored!

After that, Catmanders. As far as I can tell, this wasn't documented in the Update Notes but somehow, someone knew and word spread fast. There are two Catmander Minis (vanity pets), two Commander Tag Variants (with cat ears) and two Catmander Home Instance spawns, which come with kittens, who do battle with each other.

The Blue Catmander can be purchased near the end of the Alpine Borderlands Jumping Puzzle. The Yellow Catmander is in a hidden cave behind the waterfall in the Desert Borderlands. Dulfy has everything you could possibly want to know.

Television is all very well but you can't beat the thrill of a live performance.
Everything, that is, except anything at all about the amazing cave itself. I always wondered why there was a huge waterfall and an idyllic lake in a hidden corner of what was a) a desert and b) a battleground. I've wandered around there several times, exploring and, naturally, I'd gone behind the curtain of the waterfall, looking for secret caves, because that's what you do when you see a waterfall.

I'd never found one but there was one there. You have to drop down from the top, edge along, drop again, go behind the water, jump up, edge along some more and finally do a little dink and you're in. After I got ported inside, after I'd gosh-wowed all round and taken my screenshots, I came out only to realize I'd forgotten to feed the cat some chilli to get the house pet, so I had to find my own way back in. Even with the video to follow it took me half a dozen attempts.

Catmander inspects the troops at a training session.
What I'm wondering, after all that, is this: was that cave always there? Did some designer, some artist, create that back in 2014/15, just to let it sit there, unknown until now? Was it always filled with quaggans and cats or were they added when someone came up with the Catmander pun and thought it was too good not to use?

There's more: why are all the quaggans children? Where are the adults? Why are the cats being trained to fight? Why are the training dummies all frogs and why do they have buckets over their heads? Why is the quaggan working the puppet theater dressed as a ghost?

Is that a television that quaggan is watching? What does that orrery represent? WHY DOES THIS GAME NOT HAVE A FULLY FUNCTIONING HOUSING SYSTEM?

There is more going on here - more that makes me think, makes me feel I'm somewhere real, for a given value of reality - in this hidden cave than in all the episodes of LS3 put together. Much more.

This is what we were promised. The fight goes on!


  1. I think the biggest problem with the way Living Story season 1 was handled is that Season 2 and 3 don't make as much sense and don't have the same emotional impact if you don't play it.

    Personally I'd be fine, excited even, with one-off events, but only if they're more like the 'Anomaly' thing, unrelated or only loosely connected to the main story, or related like the Karka invasion – an event with bosses and such to kick off the story chapter, but not integral to it.

    1. I still don't really understand what most of the Current Events were about but that only makes them more intriguing. When the storyline is as incoherent and unconvincing as the main story has been, a bit of vaguely comprehensible mystery comes as quite a relief.

    2. That is very true.

      I remember watching a Bollywood movie once without subtitles (a historical adventure about the Raj) and just making up the story in my head based the "emoting faces" and relationships of characters.

      When I finally saw the movie with subtitles I much preferred my fantasy version. It was much more interesting, and weirder too.

      - Simon


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